COMMUNITY

Law clear on sexual harassment even if victims aren’t

LINA GIANNAROU

TAGS: Society

On the afternoon of September 5, Katerina’s boss called her into his office. The secretary knew that her employer had started drinking a lot over the previous couple of months, sometimes during the afternoon. That day he had overdone it.

“As I approached him, he pulled me in for a handshake and wouldn’t let go. With a quick move he tried to get me to sit in his lap. I pushed away, opened the door and left.” The next day, she mustered the courage to tell him that he had broken her trust. “He was furious. He told me, ‘If you want to leave, go.’” Katerina is now looking for a new job. “I’m not sure if it was sexual harassment; it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

‘Light’ harassment

Women of all ages from diverse sectors, including experienced professionals and those taking their first steps in the job market, offered a similar response when asked by Kathimerini about their experience with sexual harassment in the workplace: “Sure, but it was ‘light’ harassment;” “I’m not sure if it was sexual harassment because he never touched me;” “I could have reacted differently;” “At least he didn’t show up in a bathrobe like Weinstein.”

Such reactions come as little surprise. In a country like Greece, where the workplace environment tends to be relaxed and the boundaries between roles and relations are often undefined, sexual harassment in the workplace frequently goes unnoticed for what it is. As something that is considered debatable or even expected, it has almost become part of the job description, with 10 percent of workers saying they have been subjected to sexual harassment on at least one occasion, according to a survey by the General Secretariat of Gender Equality. Workers also often doubt what they have experienced when they feel that the alternative is unemployment.

According to experts, however, all of the stories recorded by Kathimerini constitute a legal case for sexual harassment that could be taken to court with dire consequences for the perpetrators. According to Law 3896/2010 on the equal treatment of men and women in the workplace, sexual harassment is any form of uninvited verbal, non-verbal or physical action of a sexual nature that aims at or results in an affront to an individual’s dignity, particularly in the creation of a hostile, fearful, humiliating, embarrassing, or aggressive environment. “Sexual harassment, including any unfair treatment in response to resistance to or rejection of these behaviors, constitutes gender discrimination and is punishable by law,” the legislation clearly states. It is a felony that can be punished with a prison sentence of six months to three years and a minimum fine of 1,000 euros. Damages awarded to the victims tend to be at least 15,000 euros. Furthermore, the burden of proof that there wasn’t sexual harassment falls on the accused.

However, most cases never make it to court. “The topic remains taboo,” says Dimitris Kremalis, a lawyer who specializes in labor rights. “Especially in small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have a human resources department, the employee is discouraged from speaking out. Women will only speak to a lawyer when they’ve had enough. The cases we have handled are those where the harassment has surpasses all level of endurance and has resulted in a detrimental change of workplace relationships, in complaints of unpaid work, bullying, etc.” The majority of cases are settled out of court, he adds.

Reaching an out-of-court settlement is how Maria, now 38 (the women who spoke to Kathimerini asked that their details not be made public), had been convinced to not bring charges against her superior at a TV channel where she worked. “‘Maybe you misunderstood the situation?’ ‘Maybe he was just flirting?’ I was told by my older colleagues. I was very young then and had started to believe it myself,” she says. Her superior often made her feel uncomfortable, such as when he asked her to attend an important conference with him. “He told me that we would go out to eat with a big group afterward. It turned out it was just the two of us. In the office he would lean in too close and say things like, ‘Your perfume makes me crazy.’ When he saw that I was not responding to his flirting he started to treat me badly, yelling at me, threatening to fire me.” Maria was eventually forced to look for a new job. Two years later, her supervisor faced disciplinary action, after another co-worker accused him of sexual harassment.

‘I told no one’

L is an actress. Until a few years ago she was in a TV show and was quite well known. “A famous director called me, telling me he saw me and liked me, and suggesting we worked together the next season. I was naively ecstatic. We agreed to meet at his house to go over my lines. To spare you the details, I was suddenly on his couch with him on top of me. ‘This is not what I had in mind,’ I told him innocently. ‘You better rethink it then if you want to work together,’ he replied. I left.”

Stella had a similar experience a few years ago. “I was 21 and had just started working in advertising. My boss was a funny man, about 50, married. One day he called me up to his office and told me, ‘No one is irreplaceable.’ He then grabbed my arms and pressed his lips against mine. I was shocked and very embarrassed. I just left. Shortly after I moved to a new company. I never told anyone, because I was embarrassed, wondering what I had done to make him think he had the right to do that. I thought to myself that he wasn’t a monster, just an exception, but really he was just a man in a position of power. It took many years for me to realize that treating sexual harassment as something normal is part of the problem.”

“You have the nicest ass here,” Jenny’s boss would say to her, in front of the rest of the staff at the restaurant where she was doing her practical training. It was one of his tamer remarks. The three months she had to spend working there to boost her CV felt endless. She had to reject his constant invitations for dinner and sex – or just sex – and his gestures and leering. “The worst part is that even now I am not sure if I told him clearly enough that it bothered me. I would always leave, constantly saying no, but it just wasn’t enough,” she tells Kathimerini.

According to Yiannis Karouzos, another lawyer specializing in labor rights, the fact that Jenny’s boss never touched her would be irrelevant in court.

“The law states that even verbal invitations with innuendos, suggestive facial expressions, inappropriate gestures or sexual innuendos in the form of a joke are all considered sexual harassment.”

However, if Jenny had “succumbed” to her boss’s advances, it would have been much harder to prove wrongdoing. “If it turns out that there was a positive response or a relationship between the two, then the perpetrator is protected. Meaning that reciprocating the flirtation or advances could mean the worker loses their rights in that situation.”

Karouzos notes that most cases of sexual harassment are seen in smaller closed-team environments, between superior-subordinate, employer-employee, including cases where women harass men, particularly in businesses with a strict hierarchical structure.

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